Saturday big races proved tricky viewing for favourite backers, with the hot favourite Blazer getting sunk in the Betfair Hurdle and the 5/1-on L’Ami Serge really fluffing his lines in the Kingmaker.
Dodging Bullets had also been odds-on through the week for all he was replaced as favourite in the final seconds running up to the Game Spirit. So what does our team make of it all? Read on…
AGRA LOOKS THE PART
I suppose in what seems to be developing into a stellar season for 2m novice hurdlers it shouldn't come as a shock that novices filled three of the first four places in last Saturday’s Betfair Hurdle, writes David Dickinson.
The season’s most valuable handicap hurdle is always a competitive affair and with Ladbroke dead-heater Sternrubin leading after the first flight a strongly-run renewal looked assured. However Richard Johnson didn't seem to have read the script and he slowed his mount going into the first bend, causing a domino effect in behind in which there were one or two major sufferers.
One of the main ones was the inexperienced favourite Blazer, having only his seventh race. Originally handicapped on his limited French form, he had made that initial mark look all wrong at Leopardstown the previous weekend and was running effectively 10lb well in at Newbury.
He failed totally to cope with the slowing of the pace on the first bend whereas Lizzie Kelly and Agrapart were positioned just to the outside of the leader and took it in their stride.
Agrapart’s win came on just his fifth hurdles start but he had a short Flat career as a three-year-old and benefited from Lizzie Kelly’s 5lb claim, something she could not draw in the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle on the horse’s previous run.
Indeed, that Tolworth form looks even stronger now than it did at the time with all three of the runners having won subsequently. The irony is that Willie Mullins, having fielded five runners here without success, finds the form of his Tolworth winner Yorkhill boosted heading towards the Festival.
Quite how all the deep ground, winter form will work out come what is usually much better ground for the Cheltenham features is anybody’s guess.
With plenty of hard luck stories in behind it paid to be towards the front and runner-up Starchitect travelled like the most likely winner for most of the contest. His measure had been taken by the winner when he all but came down at the last.
Had he lost his rider, I would have rated him six lengths better than Waxies Dargle and see no reason to change that judgement. He still gets a good pull with Agrapart, whose mark goes up 13lb to 150.
It was a quieter week on the juvenile front after the seismic shifts in the balance of power (and the ratings) the previous weekend, with Footpad and Connetable both running to 150 in winning.
Those two were both placed in the Prix du Poully at Auteuil last May, with the now Nicky Henderson-trained Fixe Le Kap on their heels, which demonstrates how pivotal some French races can become to the juvenile programme these days.
On the subject of Fixe Le Kap, he is among the entries for the Ray Gilpin Victor Ludorum Hurdle at Haydock. Well done to Haydock for naming a race after Ray but it is a pity it is only a Class 2. Ray himself was very much out of the top drawer.
GAMBLE PAYS OFF
Both graded races in the 2m chase division last week proved less than satisfactory as far as getting a line to the horses involved goes, with only one horse in each race ‘turning up’, writes Graeme Smith.
First was the Grade 2 Betfair Exchange (Game Spirit) Chase at Newbury, which went the way of Top Gamble as last year’s champion chaser Dodging Bullets failed to fire.
Kerry Lee was quoted in the run-up as saying she didn't expect Top Gamble to beat an on-song Dodging Bullets, but second prize meant good money and there was always a chance Paul Nicholls’ charge might not be at his best in testing ground and after an absence, and boy was she right.
Top Gamble is well suited by the mud, and sensibly ridden to exploit any fitness/sharpness deficiency in Dodging Bullets, as Captain Conan was too, he had his chief rival in trouble by the third last and came home with ten lengths to spare, which I rated as eleven lengths due to Richard Johnson easing him late.
It’s never easy putting figures on a race where all bar the winner have run below form, but we do have a few methods we can use for a guide. Historical standards suggested a figure around 163 for Top Gamble, but as his rating had settled between 152 and 155 over the last twelve months I wasn’t sure I wanted to credit him with that level of improvement.
Instead I went back to his last race, a competitive handicap at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, which I knew was working out well. The winner Village Vic hadn’t run since, but Tenor Nivernais in second had improved another 4lb on top of that day’s form to be second again at Cheltenham’s late-January meeting.
Considering Top Gamble had finished a close third, and clear of the remainder, I thought it appropriate to keep him in line with Tenor Nivernais from Cheltenham and therefore raise him 4lb to 159.
As a knock on, Village Vic’s rating was also raised an extra 4lb to 157 despite the fact he’d never left his stable. This is standard handicapping practise – horses go down as well as up for ‘not running’ - but we do like the horse’s profile to support such movement, and as Village Vic has improved hugely to win good handicaps on all four starts this winter there’s no doubt that his does.
Dodging Bullets was conceding 5lb to Top Gamble and ran to a figure of 153. He’d earned 171 last season when winning three Grade 1s but obviously there’s an element of doubt about his ability to run to that now.
I dropped him to 168 after this return, which puts him below Sprinter Sacre (170) and Sire de Grugy (169), who have better profiles going into this year’s Champion Chase.
While there was still plenty to hang the Game Spirit Chase on, Warwick’s Grade 2 7bets4free.com Kingmaker Novices’ Chase proved much harder to level.
Violet Dancer had won last year’s valuable Betfair Hurdle and three of his four starts over fences prior to Saturday’s race, but those wins included a handicap and his form amounted to nothing more than 143.
His two rivals were rated higher – L’Ami Serge was 153 over hurdles and had won both his starts over fences with ease and Fox Norton came rated 148, albeit with doubts about the strength his best run.
What you can rely on from Violet Dancer is that he’s tough and game, and after taking the fight to his rivals approaching those tricky five fences in Warwick’s back straight he already had them in trouble when his fluency began to wane from the fourth last.
After being only three lengths clear of L’Ami Serge at the second last he ran away again to win by eleven.
Fox Norton clearly wasn’t himself having lost touch fully five from home, and he’s down to 145, with the race in which he’d been beaten by Garde La Victoire at Cheltenham also pulled back 3lb. The question was what to make of Violet Dancer and L’Ami Serge.
I have L’Ami Serge running to figures of 147 for both his wins over fences and reckon if he and Violet Dancer were to renew rivalries he’d probably start favourite again.
I’d excuse this run to some degree, as he looked to be making a poor shape at his fences throughout to me (also several mistakes) and then seemed awkward off the bridle – maybe all wasn’t well.
I didn’t want to rate Violet Dancer as improving hugely given he’s looked a low 140s horse for the last twelve months, so thought it was fair to rate him the equal of L’Ami Serge’s chase form at 147 – some improvement to acknowledge this Grade 2 win but nothing drastic.
For context, his stablemate Ar Mad (reported to be out for the season due to injury) is the highest rated 2m novice in Britain at 155.
Given L’Ami Serge’s superior hurdles form and the ease of his previous chase wins, I added an extra 1lb to his bare figures (148) to reflect the fact I feel he’s probably still the better horse, albeit not yet as impressive as he’d been over hurdles.
Maybe my reasoning isn’t quite as strong as I’d ideally have liked, but historical standards suggested a figure higher than I was comfortable with for Violet Dancer. I’ll have to sit tight until the form is tested, and in Violet Dancer’s case that’s unlikely to be until next season as he’s reported to have returned home with an injury.